Key Departures: Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard, Harry Giles, Frank Jackson, Matt Jones, Amile Jefferson, Chase Jeter
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Trevon Duval (Fr.)
SG: Grayson Allen (Sr.)
SG: Gary Trent Jr. (Fr.)
PF: Wendell Carter Jr. (Fr.)
C: Marques Bolden (So.)
Key Reserve Players:
PF: Javin DeLaurier (So.), SF: Jordan Tucker (Fr.), C: Antonio Vrankovic (Jr.), SF: Jack White (So.), SG: Alex O’Connell (Fr.)
The Blue Devils lose their top two scorers from a season ago in Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard. Both had stellar years, which ultimately made them both lottery picks. Tatum was as polished as they come as a freshman, and Luke Kennard made tremendous strides from his freshman year to his sophomore year. Kennard, who was primarily known as a 3-point threat, turned into a terrific overall offensive player. Not only did he improve on his points per game, his field-goal percentage, and 3-point percentage, Kennard also turned into a better ball-handler and distributor. He was able to run the offense, he showed flashes of making plays for others, he increased his assists per game, and his total rebounds per game. Off of a rebound, Kennard could run the transition offense. You can’t blame Kennard for leaving Duke. He left at the right exact time, when his draft stock was at its peak. Duke also loses Harry Giles and Frank Jackson. We never got to see the real Harry Giles at Duke, we never got to see the Oak Hill Harry Giles. The former number one overall recruit has been plagued by multiple knee injuries, and hopefully he will find the health and strength in the NBA as a King. If he ever (huge if) does get back to the player that he was during his high school days, look out. Frank Jackson is one of my favorite players ever. He is the ultimate teammate, worker, and competitor. He doesn’t shy away from the big moment or from a big task. He hit a huge 3-pointer against Kansas this past year. Jackson chose to head off to the NBA, which I understand due to the fact that Duke has a loaded backcourt this year, and playing time could have been an issue. Jackson is athletic, he has bounce in his game, he is a solid defender, and his 3-point shooting will only get better and better. He would have been a star at Duke, but now he is a Pelican. He is more of a combo guard, even though he was asked to play a lot of point guard last year. He has star potential, however, I don’t think he is quite ready for the NBA just yet.
One of the most important pickups for Coach K and his staff is the addition of Trevon Duval, the highest ranked point guard on the ESPN Top 100 Chart. Coach K has not had a pure point guard like Duval since the 2015 season with Tyus Jones. And yes, Duke won it all that year. Duval is an explosive athlete with superb handles at the point guard position, and reminds me of a Dennis Smith Jr. in that regard. Duval will be able to run the offense, something that was a major issue at that position last year. Duke simply didn’t have a pure point guard to run the show. With Duval, Duke will be able to play fast in transition. Duke also has the shooters for Duval to dish it out to on the wings.
You knew eventually Grayson Allen’s name would come up. Allen was surrounded by controversy throughout last year, most of it self-inflicted. He is an emotional and competitive player, and unfortunately, he made very poor decisions. He was even stripped of his captaincy due to the trippings. Now, Allen returns as the lone senior on the Duke roster. It seems just like yesterday that he was the young, unborn star coming off the bench on the 2015 title team. He will be called upon immensely to be a leader for this young Duke team, both on the court and off the court. With Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson gone (the ultimate Duke teammates), Allen will need to be that vocal presence everyday. Allen was also plagued by injuries last year, but Coach K said that he has fully recovered from his ankle surgery. In order for Duke to be a contender, they need the sophomore Grayson Allen, not the junior Grayson Allen. Duke needs the 20+ point scorer, and over 40 percent 3-point shooter. Honestly, he would have been a lottery pick if he had left after his sophomore year. He should have done exactly what Kennard did. People were surprised to see him come back to Durham for his junior year, and many had him as the frontrunner for player of the year honors. Unfortunately, with all the controversy and injury issues, he had an inconsistent and disappointing season. He has a chance to rebound from last year’s underwhelming season, if he can perform like we all know he can for his senior year.
I was torn between Gary Trent Jr. and Jordan Tucker to start at the three, but ultimately picked Trent Jr. This would create and undersized trio of guards in the starting lineup. Trent Jr. is a five-star, and ranked 7th on the ESPN Top 100 Chart. He already has an NBA build, he can score from the perimeter, he can get to the rim, and can finish through contact. He is a natural-born scorer. Tucker would add more size in the starting lineup at 6’7″. Tucker is an outstanding 3-point shooter, but not quite the player that Trent Jr. is. After missing out on Kevin Knox, Duke offered Tucker, and he ultimately picked Duke over Syracuse. I think he will come off the bench and provide scoring in a sixth-man type of role.
For the first time in a few years, Coach K will play two natural bigs down low in the paint. Wendell Carter Jr. and Marques Bolden will be those two guys. Recently, Coach K has had players like Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow, Brandon Ingram, and Jayson Tatum play the four, even though they are natural small forwards (I expected Kevin Knox to be that player this year). Instead, he will roll with two bigs. Carter Jr. has a solid base and foundation on his lower body, he moves well for his size, he has good dribbling skills for a power forward, and can hit outside jump shots. He is a smart player who knows how to score. Bolden has so much talent and potential, but it never came into fruition last year. He was hurt to start off the year, and then he never got into a groove last season, after being talked about as a potential top 20 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. There were even talks about him transferring from Duke after his freshman season. Instead, he returns to Durham. His length/wingspan is outrageous, and his defense potential as a rim-protector oozes right out of him. If he can put everything together, he will become extremely good.
Javin DeLaurier didn’t get too much time last year, but I expect him to play a significant role off the bench this year, especially with Chase Jeter heading off to Tucson. He is an athletic freak who adds another dimension off the bench. Antonio Vrankovic played well in his limited minutes last season, and I see him playing some back-up minutes to Bolden. Between Alex O’Connell and Jack White, I expect Coach K to play one of the two in meaningful minutes off the bench. Will he play the lanky freshman, or the more physical Australian? Coach K doesn’t usually play too deep into his bench, so it will be interesting to see how many minutes are handed out to the bench players.
Duke had all the talent in the world last year, and many picked them as the preseason top team and title favorite. However, injuries occurred for the players and even for Coach K, and the Blue Devils lost in the Round of 32. A solid chemistry was never quite developed. This year’s team may not look as good on paper, but they still will be extremely good. Oh, and if Marvin Bagley does happen to reclassify and does happen to choose Duke, that would put them on top as the number one team going into the season. For now, I have them at five.